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Growing number in Gaza Strip are in no mood to celebrate

Several farmers and others in Gaza say their excitement over the cease-fire deal with Israel has faded as they've realized little has changed.

December 09, 2012|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Palestinian fishermen repair a net in the port of Gaza City last month. One of the few concrete achievements of the cease-fire is a relaxation of the restrictions on Gaza fishermen.
Palestinian fishermen repair a net in the port of Gaza City last month. One… (Ali Ali, European Pressphoto…)

JABALIYA, Gaza Strip — As tens of thousands of Gazans celebrated Hamas' 25th anniversary Saturday, Mohamed Mustafa Abdallah huddled by a small fire in a cinder-block shed, assembled from scraps of wreckage from his bombed-out wholesale food business a few feet away.

He said he was in no mood to party.

His business, near the restive Jabaliya refugee camp where many Gaza Strip militants live, was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike Nov. 17, leaving nothing but broken concrete atop crates of crushed onions, garlic cloves and other goods. It was only a year ago that he finished repairing the damage caused to the building during Israel's Gaza Strip offensive in 2009.

This time, his family says there's no way he'll be able to raise the $80,000 needed to rebuild. Embittered and distraught, Abdallah, 67, says he has received no help from the Hamas government, the United Nations or aid groups.

"No one cares about us but God," the father of eight said.

Even as Hamas leaders bask in what they see as the political accomplishments of their eight-day clash with Israel last month, a growing number of Gaza residents say their initial excitement over the cease-fire agreement has given way to the realization that life is not much better.

Farmer Wael Abu Zer, 25, also skipped the Hamas victory party Saturday in Gaza City. But when the Nov. 21 cease-fire was announced, he joined his Khan Yunis neighbors dancing in the streets.

The next day he and his brothers excitedly visited a piece of family farmland along the Israeli border for the first time in more than a decade. That plot was inside a 300-yard buffer zone that Israel had declared off-limits, turning a third of Gaza's arable land from lush farms into fields of brown weeds.

After the cease-fire, Hamas leaders told farmers they were allowed to return to the land.

"At first, we all felt like we won," he said. "We got access for our land again. We showed Palestinians were strong. We hit Tel Aviv [with a Hamas rocket]. Everyone was so excited."

But since then, two Gaza men have been killed approaching the border fence, reflecting confusion over exactly how close farmers and others are allowed to come.

Abu Zer said he's afraid to plow the land. And even if he was assured safe access, his family doesn't have the money to hire tractors to till the soil, which has been neglected since 2003. On a recent evening, he could only sit outside the buffer zone, and gaze from afar at the land his family wants so badly to cultivate.

"More than 160 people were killed for this?" he asked, referring to the Palestinians who died in the conflict. "It wasn't worth it. We thought they were going to open the borders. That we'd get to leave Gaza and visit Jerusalem. But the changes have been minuscule."

Much of Gaza's daily life has returned to normal. Stores are stocked with food and goods. Trash collection has resumed. Road repairs are underway. Even government services, such as issuing birth certificates and collecting taxes, have been restored, despite the destruction of the Hamas Interior Ministry and other government facilities.

But the promised second phase of the cease-fire, including a relaxation of the border restrictions on the movement of goods and people, remains unimplemented. After an initial round of indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and Hamas, no progress has been announced.

More than 950 homes were damaged in the conflict, including 92 that were destroyed, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council. Though Hamas has promised to assist homeowners, it's unclear where the money will come from.

Many Gazans fear it's only a matter to time before the cease-fire is broken.

Nurriden Abu Dagga, 62, is another Khan Yunis farmer with land in the buffer zone about 200 yards from the border. Until the cease-fire, he was afraid to step foot on the land. Twenty-two civilians had been killed in the buffer zone since 2009 by Israeli border guards, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Emboldened by the cease-fire, Abu Dagga returned to plant palm trees again. Recently he began marking the borders of his plot to prepare for plowing.

But he doubts that he'll ever see the trees grow, noting that Israeli bulldozers routinely keep the buffer zone free of buildings and tall trees that can be used for cover by militants.

"It's a risk to plant, but what's my choice?" he said.

As he spoke, teenagers from the town walked up to the fence and began taunting Israeli soldiers on the other side. Within minutes soldiers fired warning shots and the youths scattered.

"The situation is so fragile," he said. "One rocket and we could all be back at war."

One of the only concrete achievements of the cease-fire is a relaxation of the restrictions on Gaza fishermen, who are now allowed to take boats six nautical miles offshore instead of three.

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